United failed to make it seven wins in the last seven games and seven wins in seven visits to Villa Park, as they could only drew 1-1 with 10-man Aston Villa on Saturday.
Here’s five things we have learnt from the trip to the Midlands.
1) End of the road for Fletch
United fans love Darren Fletcher. How could we not? While not technically gifted, he represents everything we love to see in a United player: commitment, desire to win, loyalty to the shirt and so forth. Sadly, however, one gets the feeling that the Scotsman is still at the club purely on the basis of being a nice narrative after overcoming a serious disease and that is not how the final years of Fletcher’s career should unfold.
Against Villa, Fletcher was a passenger for the 45 minutes he spent on the pitch and United almost immediately upped the tempo after he was replaced. Daley Blind, Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera were all out with a combination of injuries and illness but despite the lack of alternatives, United can’t expect to dominate games by playing Fletcher.
What Fletcher has achieved in the game and the resilience he showed to fight his way back into the first team are nothing short of commendable, but the curtain on his United career must surely come down at the end of the season.
2) Lo Lo Lo
Radamel Falcao’s career at Manchester United has been a saga since he first arrived in Manchester, with his loan deal not announced until after transfer deadline. The Colombian’s performances and injury problems have since been heavily scrutinised amid rumours that Louis Van Gaal is far from convinced that Falcao deserves a permanent contract.
Finally handed a chance to leave his mark on the game as he started only his second game in over two months, Falcao did not disappoint as he netted a brilliant equaliser and showed signs of getting back to full fitness with a solid performance. The former Atletico Madrid striker still lacks the sharpness of two seasons ago, but his finish was superb and he was much more threatening than Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney and Van Gaal must hope the goal will give Falcao the confidence required to kickstart his season.
Furthermore, the Colombian might well be on an astronomical salary but his celebration spoke of a player desperate to succeed at United and he looks like folk-hero material for the fans.
3) Evans must step up
United’s defensive frailties this season have been ruthlessly exposed, with each of the defenders at Louis Van Gaal’s disposal playing their part in putting together a rather embarrassing catalogue of errors. However, while Marcos Rojo has had to settle into a new system and Paddy McNair and Tyler Blackett pay the cost of being inexperienced, Jonny Evans was the man many expected to provide a calming influence to United’s rearguard, for he’s the senior defender following the departure of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.
The Northern Irishman, however, has been a shadow of the player that had forced his way into the starting XI over Fergie’s last two seasons. Evans was shaky against Southampton and Liverpool and was guilty of allowing Christian Benteke too much space as the Belgian put Villa ahead and looked rugged throughout the game, managing to make Phil Jones look assured.
With Smalling and Rojo on their way back to full fitness and Van Gaal having already showed he’s not scared of relying on Blackett and McNair Evans must step up or he might well be moved on at the end of the season.
4) United lack a cutting edge
Last season United looked a team scared of the ball, such was their insistence on lumping it forward and attempting cross after David Moyes-inspired cross. Under Van Gaal, the players look far more comfortable on the ball but United still lack a cutting edge to open up teams set up to defend with 10 men behind the ball.
Against Villa, United had 65% of possession and completed 523 passes, twice as many as Villa, while the comparison in the final third was even more startling, with United completing 184 passes against Villa’s 48. The majority of those touches, however, were sideways as United failed to get in behind Villa’s back four in the first half with Van Persie and Falcao starved of opportunities.
Fletcher’s substitution at half-time allowed Carrick to play in his natural role in midfield and United immediately stepped up the pressure, with Van Persie testing Guzan before Falcao’s equaliser but failed to put Villa to the sword despite their numerical superiority. Possession is crucial to win football matches but keeping the ball for the sake of doing it is incredibly frustrating and United must learn to put teams under pressure from the start.
5) Consistency is key
United’s winning run was bound to come to an end at some stage. That it has done against a poor Aston Villa side that had to play over 25 minutes with 10 men is regrettable, but United can still be pretty happy with themselves going into the Christmas period, particularly considering their difficult start to the season.
With Newcastle at home on Boxing Day ahead of two trips to Spurs and Stoke either side of New Year’s Day, United can consolidate their third place on the table but they need to ensure Saturday’s was just a minor hiccup, for consistency is what hampered them the most last season.
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